By Mark Guarino
At the Concert for a Landmine Free World benefit held last December at the Chicago Theatre, some of the best folk pop songwriters of the last 25 years — Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle — sat in a row, taking turns singing selections from their deep catalog of songs.
The dark horse of the group was Patty Griffin. She was the youngest of the group and, with only two records out (the last four years ago, even), was not known much to the wider audience.
When it was Griffin’s first turn, she sang “Mary,” a mournful tribute to Christ’s mother who, while her son receives his glory, she “stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.” Griffin sang the song with burning intensity, as if she wasn’t singing in front of several thousand people, but by herself. By the song’s end, Griffin made it so that you weren’t just listening to her sing, you were eavesdropping from behind a closed door. The amount of discomfort and excitement in the air was so thick, you couldn’t cut it with a knife.
She received the loudest applause of the night. It was the type of performance, Steve Earle groaned, that was impossible to follow.
“I have a built-in sadness to my voice and I don’t have a lot of control over it,” she explained last week. “It tends to be just how it sounds. I sang a Downy fabric softener commercial once. I was one of the finalists. But they rejected me because they said I sounded too sad.” She laughs, “I was trying really hard.”
Griffin’s latest album, “1,000 Kisses” (ATO Records) is in stores this week. And although it’s her third release, the record is actually her fifth. The downside to all the multi-corporate mergers that have plagued the record industry over the last few years, is artists like Griffin are getting lost in the fray against short-term successes like Britney Spears. In fact, two of Griffin’s albums are locked up in a vault somewhere, probably never to be heard.
Her first was recorded in 1995 at producer Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio, the same place Emmylou Harris recorded her commercial breakthrough, “Wrecking Ball” (Asylum). Her label rejected the record and the album’s demos were released instead. It was a strange stroke of luck. Accompanied by just her voice and guitar, Griffin’s songs sounded more haunting than they would have with a full-fledged band. What distinguishes “Living With Ghosts” (A&M) from other acoustic records is its punk rock mettle. Griffin doesn’t just sing the songs, she is part of them, possessed — the kind of starkness that would have been drowned out by a band.
She received countless praise for the record and set out opening shows for Harris, Lucinda Williams and the Dixie Chicks among others. Then it was time for her second record and this time, Griffin set out to make it in a proper band setting. “Flaming Red” (A&M) is a juiced-up pop record containing some of her best songs, but got zero promotion, a result of the mega-mergers of 1998. A&M’s parent company PolyGram Records was bought by The Seagram Company early in the year and, as staffers were let go and priorities shifted, artists like Griffin got lost in the shuffle.
“I was probably a week on the road when PolyGram got bought by Seagrams and I ended up on that mega label. Multi-platinum artists like Sheryl Crow are on that label and nobody worked her record. I was pretty bummed out. It did screw up my plans. But a lot of people’s plans are foiled all the time in different situations in life and it was what I had to deal with,” she said.
So she concentrated on her next record, “Silver Bell.” Except this time, her label was obsessed with only hits and interested just in artists who could deliver big. The finished record was held for a year. She was told it would see the light of day if she could include verifiable radio singles.
“I ended up trying to write a single and it kind of broke my heart because I don’t work that way,” she said. “I’m just never going to do that again. It was very, very unpleasant.”
The label finally rejected the record and said if she’d write another one from scratch, they’d consider putting it out. After a week, she wiggled out of her contract. “Silver Bell” will never see the light of day, but five of the songs resurface on “1,000 Records” which is out on Dave Matthews’ private label, ATO (her contract stipulates five “re-records,” where she can re-record five new versions of “Silver Bell” songs and keep them). On ATO, she’s n the company of other refugees from major label fallouts, David Gray and Chris Whitley.
“I do feel like there was some things on ‘Silver Bell’ I really miss,” she said. “And Emmylou (Harris) sang on a song and my mother came and sang on it. They’re things that I can’t get back.”
Griffin was born in western Maine, but started writing music in Boston before she moved to Nashville a year after the release of “Living with Ghosts.” She moved to Austin four years ago, following a boyfriend. Although that relationship dissolved, she stayed put.
She financed “1,000 Kisses” herself and it just took two days to record the basic tracks at producer Doug Lancio’s house — a much different process that she was used to working with. “It was really fun to do it this way. I needed to kind of clear my head after a year of looking for a single and just sing. I wanted to sing. That’s what this record is like — a big singing record for me.”
A casual, live vibe is all over “1,000 Kisses.” In between songs are snippets of conversation, studio applause and, at the tail-end of her cover of the Bruce Springsteen song, “Stolen Car,” the sound of a car pulling away next door. Griffin also decided to add the Latin American traditional, “Mil Besos,” which she sings entirely in Spanish.
“At the same time that a lot of hard things were going on, I found that when I sit with my guitar and sing, it makes me feel better,” she said. “Even if I’m having a good day, singing makes me feel even better and more balanced